Chelsea overcame an impressive Red Bull Salzburg to eke out a 2-1 victory in Austria and secure their place in the Champions League knockout stages with a game to spare.
Following a touching tribute to Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz who passed away on Saturday, the game kicked off in explosive fashion with both sides getting forward freely and enjoying space to attack into, inside a boisterous Red Bull Arena. Once Chelsea perked up and pulled ahead, though, they dominated proceedings, playing Salzburg off the park through to half-time.
Die Roten Bullen levelled things up almost immediately after the break as the game burst into life once more, with both sides exchanging blows in what was a fantastic game of football. Chelsea needed more to get past an impressive, young Salzburg side, and they got exactly that when Kai Havertz fired them back in front in the 64th minute.
Chelsea almost capitalised on Bernardo’s poor header mere moments after the first whistle, with Havertz colliding with Salzburg goalkeeper Philipp Kohn’s head in trying to beat him to the ball. He was able to continue, though, and the hosts swiftly grew into proceedings after an early spell of Chelsea dominance.
Matthias Jaissle’s side were causing Chelsea problems when trying to build their attacks, packing their midfield tight to force them wide or long. But just as that seemed to be working, a cross into the box was defended poorly and several missed challenges saw the ball fall into the path of an unmarked Mateo Kovacic, who smashed it beyond Kohn for 1-0.
It should’ve been 2-0 after half an hour when Chelsea seamlessly evaded an aggressive press to thread together a fantastic team move which set Havertz through in a two vs one scenario. He then squared for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but the forward fluffed his lines.
Havertz spurned a glorious chance himself minutes later, meeting a brilliant cross with an underwhelming header. Aubameyang did much better with a more difficult chance on the cusp of half-time, forcing Kohn into yet another save.
Salzburg flew out of the traps after the break, and despite being denied a penalty by VAR, they drew level after 49 minutes. An exquisite cross from Maximilian Wober was met by an equally as impressive finish at the back post by Junior Adamu, punishing Chelsea’s wastefulness.
After coming up with the goods at one end, Adamu was the hero again four minutes later, clearing Jorginho’s header off the line from a corner.
Just as Havertz’s evening was becoming one to forget having missed several favourable chances, he fired Chelsea back in front with a sensational, curled strike from the edge of the box, following another neat passage of play.
Potter used substitutes to shift his side into a back four to see out the closing stages, successfully taking the sting out of an otherwise all-action contest and putting Chelsea within touching distance of winning Group E.
GK: Kepa Arrizabalaga – 6/10 – A few hairy moments with his distribution early on, but settled down as his side turned up the heat. Strong, low save to deny Benjamin Sesko later on, which he followed up by spilling a cross. Textbook Kepa.
CB: Trevoh Chalobah – 7/10 – His efforts in bringing the ball out down the channel were important in trying to overload Salzburg.
CB: Thiago Silva – 9/10 – Read the game tremendously. Knew exactly when to step out or drop off and cleared his lines in composed fashion. Bailed out his goalkeeper with a clearance off the line in the 68th minute.
CB: Marc Cucurella – 6/10 – Started shaky, but grew in confidence throughout the first half. Perhaps could’ve shown more determination to intercept the cross for the equaliser, but was outnumbered at the back post.
RWB: Christian Pulisic – 6/10 – Looked sharp in possession and stretched play well, but – as expected – struggled with his defensive duties. Missed a great chance before being hooked.
CM: Jorginho – 8/10 – The Italian at his best. Sitting at the base of midfield, Chelsea used him as the springboard for all of their best moves.
CM: Mateo Kovacic – 9/10 – Key to unlocking a well organised Salzburg midfield in being able to carry the ball and burst forward. Alert for his goal and finished brilliantly.
LWB: Raheem Sterling – 7/10 – Played an important role in stretching the play and linking up in advanced areas, but not as effective as he can be.
AM: Conor Gallagher – 7/10 – Bright on his maiden Champions League start and gave Chelsea numerical advantages in key attacking areas, particularly when peeling off to move wide.
ST: Kai Havertz – 6/10 – For a man that stands at around six foot four, Havertz should be much better at heading a football. Missed too many easy chances, then scored a worldie. Endlessly confusing.
ST: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – 5/10 – Had to score following his side’s slick move and his strike partner’s square ball. Won’t be presented with an easier chance.
SUB: Ruben Loftus-Cheek (68′ for Kovacic) – 6/10 – Couldn’t replicate the Croatian’s influence on the game.
SUB: Cesar Azpilicueta (75′ for Pulisic) – N/A
SUB: Armando Broja (75′ for Aubameyang) – N/A
SUB: Mason Mount (88′ for Sterling) – N/A
SUB: Hakim Ziyech (88′ for Gallagher) – N/A
Manager: Graham Potter – 9/10 – His decision to play two wingers in a wing-back role left Chelsea open at times, but the reward outweighed the risk. His side were untouchable in the first half, with poor finishing letting down his plan.